Does a leader’s personal religious practice hurt or help with voters? "It depends"—but on what?

The reliable Angus Reid Institute (ARI) released a report on a recent poll, undertaken in concert with our friends at Cardus, that “suggests that it is not necessarily a leader’s faith that provokes negative or positive reactions, but how the leader approaches and handles the issue on the campaign trail.”

I’m not so sure.

The press release goes on to say that “the study shows that most Canadians were aware of (at equal levels) the faith and personal beliefs of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, a Catholic, and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, an orthodox Sikh. However, twice as many report Scheer’s religiosity having a negative impact on their views of him than say the same of Singh and his beliefs (51% versus 24%).”

Roughly 60% of Canadians polled say that religious freedom “makes Canada a better country overall” (note that that fraction isn’t even two-thirds of the country—which confirms how fragile religious freedom is nowadays) while a similar proportion says “it ultimately does not matter to them whether or not a political leader is a person of faith.”

Those stats seem high to me. Again, if we understand religious freedom to be the freedom to believe and practice in ways that discomfit and disquiet other Canadians—which is the only kind of religious freedom that matters, since no one scores points for tolerating what they affirm or don’t care about—almost every cultural indicator I can think of indicates a Zeitgeist blowing strongly in the opposite direction.

Professional colleges and societies curtail the religious freedom of physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and lawyers on a wide range of bioethical, sexual, and gender issues. Universities keep having visiting speakers shouted down or physically threatened. And even the courts mumble pieties about religious freedom in the Constitution before flicking it away in the interest of “Charter values” and other convenient constructions.

But let’s zero in today on this question of religion among political leaders. Why do polls indicate that Singh didn’t seem to pay much of a price for his clearly different religious views (outside, perhaps Quebec—I’d like to see the provincial numbers)? Why did Scheer?

The last paragraph of the ARI press release tells the tale, I think—although this is my interpretation, not theirs. Here’s what they say: “Asked if they were likely to believe a pro-life political leader when he or she said they would not touch the issue of abortion legislatively if elected, just one-third (32%) say they would trust the leader at their word.”

Here we arrive at the nub of the problem. No sensible Canadian would hold Justin Trudeau’s Catholicism against him because the prime minister discernibly supports no teaching of the Roman Catholic Church at odds with his own liberal beliefs.

Few Canadians cared about the religious beliefs of any of the other leaders, either, because none of them supported ideas or policies clearly stemming from those beliefs that were in tension, let alone at odds, with their party’s platforms.

Andrew Scheer is the odd man out: holding beliefs contrary to those of his party and of the majority of Canadians because of his Catholic convictions. And he holds them on one conspicuous issue that the Angus Reid Institute wisely highlighted: abortion—the subject on which the Twitterati can be expected to go ballistic at the slightest hint that personal liberty might in any way be compromised.

In this respect, Andrew Scheer is the only interesting party leader in Canada today: the only one willing to grant religious liberty to others, the freedom to believe and practice differently than his Church tells him is best and (contra Trudeau) differently than he himself professes.

A small majority of Canadians told the Angus Reid Institute that they support religious freedom. But an even greater proportion simply don’t believe that anyone supporting restrictions on abortion can be trusted to support what amounts to religious freedom for them. And that, to me, indicates that the situation of religious freedom in Canada today is increasingly dire.

“Does a leader’s personal religious practice hurt or help with voters? It depends”—says the Angus Reid Institute. And it depends, their own data indicate, on whether voters agree with the particulars of the leader’s views.

A majority don’t believe that on the issue of abortion, and likely on many others, politicians can be counted on to grant other people religious freedom.

I’m increasingly unsure who can be.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).